December 21, 2020

Must See Exhibition

Derek Fordjour:

“Self Must Die”

Derek Fordjour, “Pallbearers”, 2020, acrylic, charcoal, cardboard, oil pastel and foil on newspaper mounted on canvas. Photo courtesy of Petzel Gallery

Derek Fordjour’s paintings, notable for their layered textures and materials, address complex themes of race, inequality and American society. Fordjour has achieved astonishing commercial success and firmly cemented his place in the art world. At Frieze art fair in 2019, he sold 10 paintings to Jay-Z and Beyonce.  He often depicts Black athletes and performers–dancers, riders, rowers, drum-majors–characters that “navigate the ambiguities that come with their achievement, and the racial scrutiny that accompanies visibility in the mainstream culture.” With his newer work, however, less emphasis has been placed on these performative roles, and more on memorializing Black lives lost this year.  

He explores mourning in a new ensemble painting “Chorus of Maternal Grief”, creating specific portraits of women like Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother, Tamika Palmer, and Breonna Taylor’s mother. In “Pallbearers”, he features the coffin of George Floyd. The works are on view alongside other installations, including a puppet show, at Petzel Gallery in “Self Must Die”. Accompanying Fordjour’s show is an epigraph from “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being” written by scholar Christina Sharpe.  Sharpe writes “What does it look like, entail and mean to attend to, care for, comfort, and defend those already dead, those dying, and those living lives consigned to the possibility of always-imminent death, life lived in the presence of death… it means work.” Sharpe refers to “wake work”, an “ensemble of activities, grand and mundane, that acknowledge and address Black death, and in doing so, affirm Black life”.  Fordjour addresses this concept alongside Black liberation theory and studies of Black mourning within his new work.  

December 14, 2020

Artist to Watch:

Chiffon Thomas

Memory and Materiality

N: Can you tell us your story up until you were accepted into the Yale program?

C: I’ll start with a story about my high school experience because it’s how I got into embroidery, which is always featured in my practice.  I was a senior in high school when I first took art.  I had a teacher who would bounce ideas off of me.  One day, she showed me a book on this artist, Daryl Morrison, an embroiderer who embroidered narratives about his upbringing.  He wouldn’t use image references to create them; they were more imagined and illustrative.  She asked me what I’d think about assigning a project like that for the class and having each student bring in a photograph to embroider. That’s how this journey started: I brought in a photograph and was able to embroider it.  I was able to do it really quickly and she assigned me to do an entire portfolio of 12 of them. I ended up applying to the Art Institute with that work. It all happened so quickly.  I was accepted into the Art Institute and actually studied education instead of art.  I wanted to be a teacher and create an impact on someone’s life.  I ended up getting my Bachelor’s of Arts Education, so I started teaching in Chicago public schools for 3 years. I taught art full time. It was a nice experience for me, but I didn’t have a lot of time to be in the studio or a practicing artist.  It’s something I always had a desire to do.  I always had these creative projects and ideas for my students that came from my own interests and wanting to make art myself.  I ended up leaving teaching, just to have the opportunity to express and create a body of work. For a year, I didn’t have a job.  I worked in the basement creating a portfolio to apply to grad schools to study art specifically and get a master’s.  I made this portfolio from 2017-2018 and ended up applying to seven different universities and grad programs.  I got into all of them except for one.  I went to Skowhegan using the same portfolio. It was so crazy because I didn’t have a lot of exposure to art. I was mainly focusing on education and psychology—so I didn’t get a lot of that background.  When I went to Skowhegan, it prepped me for being in a program like Yale.  It exposed me to readings and artists that I was super unfamiliar with that actually helped to inform my practice when I started grad school at Yale.  

Chiffon Thomas, “Iron Father”, 2020, Tree bark, embroidery floss, fabric, window blinds, chalk pastel, rebar wire

N: Why don’t we talk about some of the themes you explore in your work and how has your journey contributed to this? How do the various materials contribute to the idea?  

C: I guess I’ll start at the beginning, around the time I was creating these bodies of work. I came from the interest of working with family photographs.  I continued that because I look at family photo albums all the time.  I know a lot of people do because it’s different from looking at a digital device.  It’s so nice to have something tangible.  Something shot in film is so different from being shot on your phone.  I look at family photo albums out of pure nostalgia and a desire to be seen as an individual that can aspire to be anything that they want to be. As I was growing into adulthood, some of the ways that I wanted to identify were not accepted or rejected.  The pull and distance created in my relationships with my family were making me self-aware of not having a space of belonging. I was craving to have those things I would find in family photo albums and to investigate where they were or where they got lost over the course of time. I started to recreate them in these large-scale embroideries, which I was making in 2017.  Everybody loves to look back at their pasts and at their family. Giving people access into Black family structure was something I didn’t realize I was doing at the time.  When viewers would actually engage with the work, I could tell they were looking at a world they didn’t have access to before.  Even crafting these domestic scenes out of fibers, using things like pillowcases, brought things home to people.  They saw how familial bonds were created through families like mine with the tenderness of these relationships and how fragile they are.  A fragility is presented in the bodies that aren’t represented as well.  People have a level of care and can relate to those images that I make of my family. That’s what that work was about.  Even now, some of those things are finding their way into the bodies I make even when I’m not directly showing something that’s pictorial in my work.  People can see the humanity—I want the humanity to be present in the work in the way that I’m handling the body.  There’s this reconstruction of a being from being constantly oppressed, beat down, misrepresented or projected upon in these misinformed ways. I try to correct this and shift the viewer’s eyes and show a psychological perspective.  I bring that through material too, as material has its own history or it’s weathered or not polished.  You can see its scarring and how those things occurred through its activities without you being present.  You end up finding ways to repurpose it and reconstruct back into a form where it’s not devalued.  

Chiffon Thomas, “Enveloped Cope”, 2020, leather, black canvas, embroidery floss, thread, hair, plaster, chalk pastel, paint chips

N: Allowing the material to almost live like your skin, because your skin is scarred and has bruises and marks.  It’s a living organism like the materials you used.  When you mentioned your embroidery, pillowcases, fragility and tenderness that comes with that, all I could think about is the smell of someone’s pillowcases.  When you put your head down on that pillow and get that “ah, this is my bed” it conjures the nostalgia and comfort of your home, and how you grew up. It’s a beautiful way to look at these things.

C: It’s so crazy how our senses are activated from something we remember.  I was watching a TV show I hadn’t seen in years.  Over the summer, I just said “Let me find it on Hulu.” I rented it and was watching it in my room in the dark.  Immediately, I felt immersed in a setting or time period where I used to watch the show all the time. It overwhelmed my whole experience. I felt like I was back at that age in the room I was watching it in.  I hadn’t felt something so intense. I felt so nostalgic.

N: It’s an intangible feeling.  Let’s talk a little bit about the last year. I know you were recently featured in the show and subsequent catalogue “Young, Gifted, and Black” with Bernard Lumpkin.  You have some extraordinarily talented friends, some that are friends of mine.  Who do you look at in the generation before you for inspiration and admiration?

C: I know that that book is going to make an impact on artists.  It’s so crazy to even think about.  The work in that book is so strong and experimental.  Bernard’s collection has a nice, rich variety. It’s such a genius idea.  For that work in particular, I was looking at a lot of popular culture.  But for composition and color I was looking at this court case illustrator.  This woman illustrated the Cosby trials, Christine Cornell.  The way that she composes her court case scene are like a scale of individuals enlarged to show exaggeration or give weight to the actual mood occurring with her ability to use color.  She did a lot of drawing with chalk pastels.  That’s how I translate images: I translate them into pastel drawings.  I got that from looking at her drawings.  That’s a nice approach to understand color, human anatomy, and muscles.  I was really learning from the way that she composed mood.  I also sometimes just look at things that pop up on social media or even googling certain words and seeing what images I link to those words in search engines.  I get a lot of inspiration from that. Another artist I was looking at was Lauren DiCioccio, a soft sculpture artist that embroiders The New York Times in painterly, fluid ways, allowing the thread to hang freely. She wasn’t just doing that, she was making soft sculptures of things like polaroids, shopping bags recreated out of fabric and fiber. I just thought that was a way to kind of elevate and archive a moment in your history.  It is mundane, minute, or overlooked, but you have taken the time to care for this object and give it a sense of importance.  I really liked her aesthetic and tried to incorporate some of those techniques into my own practice. I was also looking at Sedrick Huckabee, who is also Yale alumni. He painted these little paintings of domestic spaces that pulled the eyes in dramatic ways, like the foreshortening of an image or a perspective pushed back. He has these images of his grandmother in a bedroom scene that are really painterly.  The paintings have a kinetic appeal to them, even though there in the mixed format of paint or whatever material the artist is exploring.  

Chiffon Thomas, “Case”, 2020, Embroidery floss, thread, found tree bark, acrylic ink, chalk pastel, rebar wire

N: Can you tell us about your most recent shows and residencies, and what’s coming up?

C: I’m in a group show in Beacon New York, “Parts and Labor”.  I was just in the group show “Myself” at Kohn Gallery in LA, which ended this month. I’m going to be in my own solo show at Kohn Gallery in March. I recently finished Fountainhead Residency. I was there for a month and it was amazing.  It was in Miami.  Kathryn Mikesell and Dan Mikesell are amazing, they run the residency space. I’m going to be in Art Basel and I’m showing work with P.P.O.W. in New York.  I’m showing an embroidery and three drawings.  I’m also going to be represented by P.P.O.W. and Kohn.  Plus, I have some exciting things coming up in the new year. Lots to look forward to!

November 24, 2020

The 2020 Art Market

The art world is experiencing a necessary evolution and expansion in 2020. Nothing replaces the experience of standing in front of an artwork, feeling its aura, and hearing its story, yet the art world has been thrust into the world of digital viewing rooms, online sales, and price transparency like never before. While shut down, galleries and auction houses found new ways to stay connected to collectors by staging virtual exhibitions, developing content, and hosting Zoom panels, initiatives that galleries had on the back burner for years. The upside: viewing art is made more accessible through virtual options and price transparency has been embraced. Buying art online is not a new concept; Gagosian sold a Cecily Brown online for $5.5M in 2019. Yet, it has generally been a resisted concept until becoming a necessity.

This time last year, we would have attended dozens of art fairs across the globe, riding the endless merry-go-round of fair-after-fair. Now, almost all fairs have now paused and (many of us) have taken a collective breath. Dealers, galleries, advisors, and auction house specialists have had to lean into the digital and figure out how to translate the storytelling of artworks online, followed up by an old-fashioned phone call and emails. What we have found is that privately existing collectors make up three-quarters of online sales and are comfortable transacting into low six-figures online. However, the auction houses tell a different online story and have seen multiple seven figure bids and sales, including an online bidder from Asia for a Francis Bacon that sold at Sotheby’s for $84.5M in June 2020. In this same Sotheby’s sale (the first since lock down), the art market took a giant sigh of relief when it totaled $300 million USD, signaling that collectors still had a heartbeat. High net worth collectors have demonstrated that they’re still comfortable buying at $250,000+. It wasn’t until the cliff of the election that we started to see jitters at $4M+.

Beyond the shift to digital, collectors have continued to demonstrate a keen interest in collecting cross-category, which is not surprising, unless it’s a dinosaur. In October, Christie’s placed STAN, the largest and most complete fossil ever found of a T-Rex in their Evening Sale, alongside Picassos and Pollocks. It sold for $30.8M against an estimate of $6-8M. Similarly, Sotheby’s placed three Alfa Romeo’s, an automotive triptych from 1953, 1954, and 1955 that resemble something from The Jetsons, in their Evening Sale, fetching $14.8M. Just as Lizzo described herself to Letterman, collectors are multi-faceted. They love beautiful things that move them and tell a story regardless of designated genre.

While the highest echelons of the market are buzzing, it’s important to recognize young talent, especially MFA students who graduated this year. There are so many gifted artists out there and it will be my pleasure to share the work of Hangama Amiri in the next artREAL article. Stay tuned!

Joan Mitchell, Untitled (1979). Courtesy of Phillips. This piece will be offered as part of Phillips’s upcoming 20th century and contemporary art evening sale on December 7th, 2020 with an auction estimated of $9 to $12 million.
November 9, 2020

Artist to Watch:

Hangama Amiri:

Storytelling Through Textiles

Hangama Amiri
Interview between Nicole Bray and Hangama Amiri

N: Can you tell us your story up until you were accepted into the Yale MFA Program?

H: I was born in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1989. That was during the civil war, the war in Afghanistan, where people were migrating from country to country. My Mom was a refugee in her own neighborhood.  I spent most of my life in Kabul, Afghanistan, and that’s why I call myself an Afghan artist. Since then, when the Taliban took power in 1996, we became refugees to Pakistan again.  We were there until 1999.  After that we became refugees to Dushanbe, Tajikistan.  We lived there until 2005, when we immigrated to Canada.  During these times I was always interested in the arts.  From a young age I was always drawing my dreams and stories about moving country to country. I was also drawing about my future or my utopic hope for the future.  It was really interesting.  In Tajikistan I took my arts seriously, because I won a small scholarship in the arts program.  It was a two-year scholarship for the Olimov College of the Arts.  I applied through a UNICEF competition–I won first place and that led me to a two-year degree in the college of arts.  From there I learned a lot about academic drawing.  It was a very Russian based school, so they taught me a lot about observational life drawing. My passion for that grew, and when we immigrated to Canada in 2005, I decided to continue making my art. I graduated my BFA program from NSCAD University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  From there I took five years to exclusively do artist residencies.  I’ve done residencies in Europe and Canada.  I was also a Canadian Fulbright.  I completed an independent research program at Yale University—it was a different program at than the MFA, but being in New Haven for a year as a Fulbrighter gave me an opportunity to be closer to the Yale School of Art.  There I made really close friends. Tomashi Jackson was still in school, it was her second year I think. Alteronce Gumby was there too, so lots of great artists that we now know these days.  It was really interesting because people were so serious about their art and their views in artmaking, practice, and material.  Discussions were taking place and it really opened me to also seeing my art here someday, at this level.  I took another year off again after my research and came back.  I graduated during the pandemic, and now I’m still working and living in New Haven.  

N: What themes do you explore in your work? What does your creative process entail? How do you explain your choice of medium? 

H: In my art practice I explore themes of childhood memories, fragmented identities, gender, and the contemporary Afghan women’s voice.  These themes have always been my interests, for a long time—painting the untold stories of the Afghan woman and bringing them into the visual arts context and giving them an importance and voice. 

My process really takes place in the beginning when I start making my projects.  I do a lot of looking into the visual culture specifically in Afghanistan. I research and draw a lot.  I also sketch out my plans and the direction the theme will take. From there I go on to fabric.  In the actual material process there is a lot of fabric appliqué, cutting, and collaging involved.  There is a lot of painting with gouache, colored pencil, or colored markers to give me an idea of color as a memory and how I memorize those colors.  That’s my process—juggling materials before the actual finishing of a piece.  

The medium of my choice is textile. I call them “textile art” pieces because the fabrics that I’m using aren’t just fabrics in shopping malls or in fabric stores, but they are geographically specific.  They’re not only from the garment district of New York City, but from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Tajikistan.  It’s really important for me to choose my fabrics specifically based on their context and culture.  

N: Where did you learn how to sew? 

H: I learned sewing on my own at Yale University. I started at Yale as a painter, but I slowly became interested in collaging.  My paintings usually evolved around painting cultural patterns from memory that related to Afghan culture or how women would dress in certain patterns or fabrics. So I was interested in painting fabrics, but from there I questioned the material a lot.  I was having problems with canvases too. Slowly, I gathered materials together and started stitching them and uniting them.  I started needling first and that became such a meditative practice in my studio.  I was really looking forward to stitching, uniting stories together.  From there the machine made it a bit faster, gathering materials quickly to embroider.  It became a drawing tool for me and now I make my own patterns using the machine.  I was inspired by my school–I wasn’t the only artist working with embroidery.  My group was so diverse in their craft and materials.  Together we were all learning about this history of fabric and embroidery. So, it was a really creative year.  

N: Why don’t you tell us about your MFA work Beauty Parlor and some of its elements and meanings? 

H: I did the Beauty Parlor series when I was in my second year at Yale.  I really focused on women’s issues again and women’s social life in Kabul city.  I was thinking of my recent visits back there and how my relationships were with the community of women.  The society is very gender constructed, so I had most contact with my own cousins, my own women.  So, it was really interesting for me to wherever I explored, be surrounded by women. Salons are really interesting because there were so many women’s salons in Kabul.  It really inspired me to see women in business that created public spaces where they could go, do makeup, be beautiful, treat themselves, you know? It was really beautiful to go there and be with them, because a few of my cousins also had weddings. It was really celebratory to be around them.  In this piece I was very interested in the spaces that women shared.  In that particular series I depict women being treated.  There’s a bride sitting in the center of the piece that’s also gazing at us, while the other person is treating her hands.  It is such an intimate space as well, because there are women to women treating each other but no other contacts.  On the right side you can see women waiting in a waiting room. The top part is the title of the Shop. It’s called Arayeshgahe, Bahar in Farsi.  And on the left side we have a soldier standing with the sign of a gun.  Mostly, when women from important families would visit these public spaces, they would always bring a guard with them, just for security.  So, no matter how free they would feel inside, outside was still a war-zone.  They would feel insecure being outside, so I wanted to reference that part as well.  In this piece the fabrics that I’ve used, in this piece specifically, have traditional Afghan coatings in cut-out and collage.  It also shows a dollar bill, because people were using dollar bills in a state of Afghan money.  It was interesting to see there because I still felt like I was in America or in Canada instead of Afghanistan.  That object was really familiar to me.  In this piece I also use photographs that are references to Bollywood actresses or movies, because those salons also had a lot of posters of Western models or Indian, Bollywood actresses. That also references our talk about beauty politics.  Questioning the beauty politics of Western culture, me being here for example, is about appearance.  But there, the beauty politics are very much within themselves.  As soon as women walk outside, they wear a veil.  They want to be beautiful within their own communities.  So, it is also a question of those layers that I played with in this piece.  

Bahar, Beauty Parlor (Arayeshgahe, Bahar), 2019, Color ink marker, gouache paint of fabric, chiffon, denim, printed paper, acid dye on chiffon and found fabrics

N: Tell us about your most recent shows. What can we expect from your shows coming up? 

H: A few of my recent shows were online, with everything moving to the online platform these days.  A recent one that I was very happy about was with Perrotin Gallery, where they invited a group of artists from the MFA program to show our Post-Thesis shows on online platform.  That was very successful and we were very happy to be still involved in the arts scene after graduating.
 I am really excited about my solo show with T293 Gallery in Rome starting November 21st.   The title of the exhibition is called “Bazaar: A Recollection of Home”.  It’s pretty much reminiscing a bazaar environment in fabric, and this environment comes from my childhood memories of growing up in the bazaar. I’m pretty much transforming this space with the things that I’ve seen in the bazaar.  The objects that I’ve seen are the objects that I relate to, specifically because when I was young, I always used to go to the bazaar with my aunts and with my Mom.  We also used to go to the tailor shop and many clothing stores. Again, beauty salons, nails salons.  So, these were the spaces where women would spend their leisure time on Friday or the weekends.  Remembering back, that space tells a lot about time, politics, and history.  Back then it was pre-Taliban and I could still witness that there weren’t many businesses owned by women.  It was still a very male-dominated public space.  Comparing that to my recent visits to bazaars, it actually has changed. I’ve seen so much hope in the voices of women. This space has transformed, and these women attract more women, business-women. They have beauty salons under their names. So for me, in this solo exhibition, I’m creating a space that women feel they belong to, which is the bazaar.  The bazaar is a space in Post-Taliban society that women still don’t feel that they belong, a part of the public space.  But for me in this exhibition, I’m creating an environment where women are the most important thing, with their voices, images, and names being written loudly. 

Detail of Bahar, Beauty Parlor (Arayeshgahe, Bahar), 2019, Color ink marker, gouache paint of fabric, chiffon, denim, printed paper, acid dye on chiffon and found fabrics

N: In the current climate of political divisiveness, cultural reckoning, and social justice, what do you believe the role of the artist is at this moment in time? 

H: I really love this question, Nicole.  I think it is a very tough question, but very important for artists to have.  All I can say in this situation is that for me, it’s everyday.  For me the role of an artist is to never stop working, never be silent, and also never fear.  It reminds me of a really good quote by Toni Morrison: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work.  There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.  We speak, we write, we do language.  That’s how civilizations heal.” I feel like her quote is so important to always look back on in these political times we live in.  She says it all.  

N: So, keep working? 

H: Yes, keep working.  I think we have the tools to challenge the facades that are happening in our daily life.  

N: Well you beautifully place the strength and power of Afghan women, central within your work. You’re doing this everyday.  Thank you.  

H: Thank you, I appreciate it.  No stop sign yet!